Radiohead interview: The Golden Age of Radiohead
The one single released by the band during 1994, “My Iron Lung,” was greeted with puzzlement at the time, but in retrospect its jangly, ring-modulated opening hook, smooth McCartney-esque vocal verse melody and pulverizing guitar explosions in the bridge sections mark it as a prime example of the new Radiohead style. But “My Iron Lung” fits in perfectly with the rest of the material on The Bends, and it has since become a concert highlight. (Interestingly, “My Iron Lung” is actually a live recording, taken from a show at London’s Astoria in May, 1994. Only the vocals were replaced; there are no other overdubs.)
The Bends was released in March 1995, and right from the opening—heavily echoed chords of “Planet Telex” (a sound produced by running a piano through three vintage Roland Space Echo units in series)—it was clear that Radiohead had taken a stunning leap forward. This was powerful music of the arena-rock variety, no doubt, but with an intelligence and sensitivity that indicated something special. Arrangements had become more intricate; for the first time, the band was making creative use of its three-guitar lineup.
Ironically, O’Brien says this came about as the result of playing less: “We were very aware of something on The Bends that we weren’t aware of on Pablo Honey. There was a need to put more and more guitar tracks on Pablo Honey, and you had to play all the time. Whereas the approach to The Bends was, if it sounded really great with Thom playing acoustic with Phil and Coz [Colin], what was the point in trying to add something more?” As Yorke jokes, “Sometimes the nicest thing to do with a guitar is just look at it.”
In general, it could be said that the division of guitar labor in Radiohead is that Yorke plays rhythm, Jonny Greenwood plays lead and Ed O’Brien makes weird noises. But that’s an oversimplification, as any of the three are capable of doing anything at any time. Yorke downgrades his guitar skills, saying, “I just keep time, really,” while Greenwood bristles at being called a lead guitarist: “You could describe it like that, I suppose, but it’s not really like that.” But Yorke quickly comes to Greenwood’s defense: “When I run out of melodies, there’s usually something on Jonny’s guitar that’s a melody, like Mr. [George] Harrison used to do. You know, pick a melody up here [fingers upper reaches of imaginary fretboard], and so on, because it gets a bit boring listening to one voice all the time.”
Two other prominent differences on The Bends are the expanded use of keyboards (mainly played by Jonny), and the amount of group contribution in the songwriting. Though all Radiohead’s songs from the start have been credited to the group, most of the early ones were mainly by Yorke (he still writes nearly all the band’s lyrics, though he says “the others help me with spelling, stationery and basic grammar.”) This changed during The Bends. “Nice Dream,” for example, was originally a simple four-chord Yorke composition, but Greenwood and O’Brien added more parts, including the intro, while the music to the propulsive “Just” was largely written by Greenwood, who Yorke says “was trying to get as many chords as he could into a song. It was like writing a medley.”
Probably the best-known song on The Bends is the slow-building “Fake Plastic Trees,” which it would be tempting to call a “power ballad” if the band weren’t so diametrically opposed to the kind of histrionic show of (usually false) emotion that normally characterizes such songs. Yorke remembers the recording of “Fake Plastic Trees” as “a fucking nightmare.” O’Brien says, “There was one stage at the first session when it sounded like Guns N’ Roses’ ‘November Rain.’ It was so pompous and bombastic, just the worst.” Yorke explains that the song was saved through a mixing error: “Paul [Kolderie] missed a cue, so the electric guitars don’t come in at the right place. It was a mistake, but we kept it.”
Radiohead supported The Bends with more rigorous touring, including five U.S. visits. New songs soon began appearing in the set lists, several of which would appear on the band’s next album: “Subterranean Homesick Alien,” “No Surprises,” “Let Down,” the raucous “Electioneering” and the rather Floydian “Lucky,” the first of OK Computer’s songs to be recorded (originally for a 1995 benefit album for Bosnian war relief), which opens with the sound of O’Brien strumming his guitar’s strings above the nut with a nail file. It was also during this time that Jonny’s aggressive, arm-snapping playing style began giving him serious pain. A doctor diagnosed a repetitive stress injury and advised Jonny to wear a brace on his right arm, which has since become something of a trademark. “I enjoy putting it on before I play,” he confesses. “It’s like taping up your fingers before a boxing match.”
In a March 1996 interview, Yorke said that he felt The Bends succeeded because “we had to put ourselves into an environment where we felt free to work. And that’s why we want to produce the next one ourselves, because the times we most got off on making the last record were when we were just completely communicating with ourselves, and John Leckie wasn’t really saying much, and it was just all happening. I don’t know if it’ll work again, but I hope it does.”
With the assistance of engineer Nigel Godrich, Radiohead did produce their next album themselves. They bought their own recording gear and went to work, first in their own rehearsal studio, then in actress Jane Seymour’s 15th-century mansion near Bath. Their plan was to stay away from traditional recording studios and the bad vibes they’d previously set off in the band. But the same tension present during the Bends sessions appeared once again during the tracking for OK Computer.
“We thought we could get the same relaxed atmosphere recording the album as we’d gotten recording B-sides in our rehearsal studio,” O’Brien laughs. “But that idea was quickly scrapped.” Yet the band eventually realized that creative tension wasn’t necessarily bad. “Part of it came from the fact that we’d never produced ourselves before,” says Selway, “and there was a lot that we had to learn in a short time. But we know now that there are always going to be clashing moods whenever we make anything worthwhile. We’ve developed our coping mechanisms.”
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